Catherine Frazee - “The Vulnerable”: Who Are They?

This article was originally published by the virtual hospice on March 31, 2016.

By Catherine Frazee, OC, D.Litt., LLD. (Hon.) Professor Emerita, School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University

We must protect the vulnerable, the Supreme Court told us in its landmark decision establishing a limited right to physician-hastened death in Canada. In my work with the federal External Panel appointed last year to facilitate a national consultation on physician-hastened death, there was wide agreement. On March 1, an impressively diverse coalition of advocacy, faith and medical organizations issued the Vulnerable Persons Standard, a clear articulation of what protections for vulnerable people should include.

There is very little argument that our new regulatory scheme for hastened death must build in safeguards to protect the vulnerable. But what exactly does this much-repeated phrase mean? Who is vulnerable, and why?


To be vulnerable, quite simply, is to be without defence.

For some persons – infants, toddlers, persons with extensive and severe impairments – vulnerability may be intrinsic to their condition of life. Without muscle to flee or resist, without words to request or refuse, without art or philosophy to reinvent or transcend, such persons are nearly fully at the mercy of others.

Yet even in these most seeming absolute expressions, vulnerability presents itself by degrees. The infant born in Oshawa in 2016 shows herself in fact to have robust defenses, compared to the infant born simultaneously in Aleppo, Syria. Likewise today’s toddler with Down syndrome from Kamloops is doubtless far less vulnerable than was her counterpart in Hadamar, at the peak of Nazi rule in 1941.

Vulnerability is as much a matter of context as it is of personal condition. In this way, for each and every one of us throughout life, vulnerability is situational, experienced when our defenses are stripped away.

Link to the full article